CHAPEL HILL — Tommy Galloway heard the coyote before he saw it. Fifty yards away, a bark that sounded more like a cough.
Then, more barking as it got into a menacing hunch, as if to protect something. Galloway, still well away from the animal he had first mistaken for a dog, thought it best not to try to squeeze past it along the wooded Carolina North forest trail.
"It was a little scary," the Chapel Hill resident recounted Thursday. "I didn't know what it was going to do. The way it was barking was enough to make me turn and go the other way."
Galloway is one of many frequent visitors taking notice of signs warning of increased coyote activity in this lush forest. Officials with the forest, which is owned and operated by UNC-Chapel Hill, are advising people that more coyotes are being seen. Use caution, they say. Perhaps most importantly, don't bring an unleashed dog there.
"Do not instigate contact by letting your animal companion run free," warns a recent update on the forest's Web site. "Coyotes will 'vigorously defend' their dens and brood; your animal will be at a considerable disadvantage."
It wasn't clear Thursday what "increased coyote activity" amounted to on the property, and animal experts say it's tough to get a good count.
Robert Marotto, Orange County's animal services director, said his agency has received just a couple of reports of coyotes lately within the county.
The coyote population has steadily gained ground across North Carolina. Prior to 1983, just five North Carolina counties had confirmed coyote sightings; by 2005, each of the state's 100 counties reported their presence, according to data from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
And there's nothing out there to keep the coyote population in check, said Perry Sumner, section manager with the division of wildlife management within the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.
"They're kind of at the top of the food chain," he said. "There's nothing out there that will kill a coyote."
There may be a growing number of coyotes on the Carolina North property, Sumner said. Or people may just be noticing them more because there are more hours of daylight. In addition, more female coyotes scavenge for food in the summer months because they generally birth their pups in February and March, and spend the next few months caring for them.
The Carolina North property is 1,000 acres just north of the main UNC-CH campus. About 250 acres of it is slated for development by the university.
Galloway lives close to the Carolina North forest and has jogged and biked that property for years. He never saw or heard about coyotes until about five months ago. Then, other runners in his jogging group kept telling their own stories of coyote sightings.
"It may be just one active coyote or a lot of them," Galloway said, adding that one friend reported being chased back to his car by a barking coyote. "There's definitely been an increase in stories. Up until five months ago, if someone said there were coyotes out there, I wouldn't have believed them."
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